Neighborhood council opposes on-campus gun safety class

Additional reporting by: David Schub

The Woodland Hills Warner Center Neighborhood Council is trying to stop a gun training and safety course that has been offered by Pierce College since 2008 from being taught on campus.

The council, an elected advisory body representing Woodland Hills and Warner Center locals, voted 10-9 on Wednesday, May 8 to revise and send a letter to the Pierce president, a trustee and the chancellor of the district the school is under, calling for the relocation of the class.

The vote comes days before the next session of the National Rifle Association (NRA) Basic Pistol Course on campus.

“We have absolutely no problem with the class,” said Scott Silverstein, council chair. “But the board feels that it’s inappropriate to have it on a school campus.”

Though the class has been ongoing for the past five years, the council only just became aware of its existence after they happened to see it listed in the latest catalog with the schedule of classes.

Alma Johnson-Hawkins, Pierce’s acting president, was present at the May 8 meeting to get first-hand information on the issue, she said.

“They had what they thought were facts,” she said. “We just want to make sure that everything is accurate.”

Besides fact checking, the administration isn’t currently taking any steps to either cancel or move the class elsewhere.

“There’s so much in the air right now. It’s really hard to plan a response,” Johnson-Hawkins said. “This is a serious issue. This will be handled by the appropriate people.”

The course–provided through Pierce Extension, the college’s not-for-credit community education program–covers the basics of handling firearms, including ammunition, fundamentals of pistol marksmanship and how to clean and store handguns.

While the lecture portion of the class is taught on campus, a live fire section is conducted at a nearby firing range, according to the course description.

Additionally, the instructor brings numerous unloaded firearms for assembly and cleaning demonstration purposes.

The course fulfills a requirement to take the exam needed for the purchase and ownership of firearms. At the conclusion of the class, participants receive a certificate of completion “suitable for framing.”

The letter drafted by the neighborhood council lists eight potential issues that support the idea that teaching a course like this on a college campus is not a good idea.

One of the group’s arguments is a passage from the Gun-Free School Zone Act of 1995, where the general public is not expecting weapons on campus, nor are permitted, except for law enforcement.

Other points included in the letter are that several trustees of the LA Community College District board, including Scott Svonkin, as well as some officers in the Pierce sheriff’s station, were unaware that such a class takes place on campus, and that there is no visible signage warning passers-by that a gun safety class is in session.

“If someone [tried] to keep the information from us, it is a serious breach of ethical behavior,” said Svonkin. “It doesn’t meet with the values of Pierce and the Los Angeles Community College District.”

However, Gerry Koehler, who teaches the class, said that before the course came into fruition, he spoke with the head of the LA community college sheriff’s division to get it approved. He also said that on the first day that he taught the course, he stopped by Pierce’s sheriff’s station to get his weapons checked out by the officers.

“I am annoyed that the council would make a big stink about one person’s animosity towards guns and gun safety,” he said. “It’s a perfectly safe class. The weekend sheriffs know exactly what’s going on because they have to open up the doors for us.”

Koehler also doesn’t agree with the neighborhood council’s issue with the lack of signage on the classroom to warn other people on campus at the time of the class.

“Anybody else doesn’t need to know,” he said. “It could make us a target.”

The Council does acknowledge that gun safety is imperative to gun ownership and does not question one’s right to legal gun ownership; however, the members feel that providing this class on a densely populated public campus with other classes, youth activities and other activities is inappropriate, alarming and potentially unsafe.

As evidenced by the council’s divided vote, not all the members agreed with the idea of requesting that the class be moved.

“Have you been to a gun range? It’s not conducive to learning. As far as the educational part goes, I can understand why it should be taught on campus,” said Kathy Davis, area 7 business representative.”

Koehler started the course in Los Angeles Harbor College a year before he began offering it at Pierce.

He was already teaching a different class when someone who knew of his NRA certification expressed her interest in learning how to handle firearms, but was hesitant about taking lessons at a gun range.

After going through the normal procedure of getting the course approved, Koehler started by offering one class during the spring and fall semesters, but he decided to teach it during the winter and summer intercessions because it was so popular among community members.

“These classes have been going awfully well,” Koehler said.

According to the Pierce College Extension website, the June 8th class is completely full with a waiting list but there is still availability for the August 3rd class.

The letter written by The Woodland Hills – Warner Center Neighborhood Council